RESULT: Kilkenny 2-22 : 0-23 Tipperary
This time last year, I was playing a very poor host to crime fiction’s very own Uncle Travelling Matt Fraggle, aka Peter Rozovsky (right), who was in town for the Books 2008 Festival. As part of his weekend, Peter wandered into town on the Sunday afternoon and discovered that there was some kind of match being played at Croke Park. He bought himself a ticket and toddled along, watched Kilkenny demolish Waterford in the All-Ireland hurling final, and pronounced himself fairly impressed with the experience.
Now, the thing about last year’s hurling final is that Kilkenny put in a performance that was nigh-on pitch perfect, a display of total hurling that was unexpected even for a team that is regarded as one of the finest hurling outfits of all time, and akin, in football terms, to watching Real Madrid (Di Stefano, Eusebio, et al) beat Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in the 1960 European Cup Final. So Peter got very lucky, and shouldn’t ever expect to see as fine a display again.
Peter was also lucky to see Henry Shefflin in his prime. I’m too young to have seen the likes of greats such as Nicky Rackard, Christy Ring, John Doyle or Eddie Keher play, but Henry Shefflin belongs in the pantheon. Certainly he has the gifts, in hurling terms, of a Magic Johnson or a Maradona. Big and strong, brave and honest, he blends brute strength with the delicate touch of a brain surgeon, and has the work ethic of a red ant to boot. He is the complete hurler, and – though it breaks my heart to say it, given that I’m a Wexford man when it comes to hurling – it’s unlikely we’ll see his quality again. Mind you, Joe Canning might have something to say about that …
Anyway, the pairing for tomorrow’s final – Kilkenny again, vs Tipperary – should make for a much better game, given that Tipp are unlikely to collapse the way Waterford did last year, and in fact should have beaten an admittedly under-strength Kilkenny in the League Final earlier this year. Two good, strong, tough, brave and very skilful teams – I’m already salivating at the prospect. As far as I can make out, the game will be webcast here, although I’m not sure if it’s going to be available worldwide – Peter, you may want to fiddle about with IP addresses and whatnot if you want to see it live.
For those of you who know nothing about hurling, let me say that it’s similar to ice hockey in speed, skill and aggression, although hurlers play the game in the air as well as on the ground – they lift the ball, catch it in mid-flight, etc. It’s played on grass, on a pitch roughly the size of a gridiron, and it’s not unusual for a man to score from sixty, seventy or even eighty yards out the field. Other than helmets (which not everyone wears), the players wear no protection or armour; and they are amateur players who play the game to a professional standard with no other reward than pride in the jersey. There is for only very rare exceptions a system of transfer. You play for the county where you were born.
We were watching some golf major on TV a few years ago, and Tiger Woods hit a three-iron to within three feet of the pin, stopping it dead bar the tiniest of back-spins. The crowd went ape. My father, an ex-hurler, said, ‘Aye, now let’s see him do it at full sprint, with some hairy redneck trying to take his head off.’ Which is, in essence, the appeal of hurling in a nutshell.
In my never-humble opinion, hurling is the greatest game ever played. There is hurling, and there is everything else. The vid below is a decent introduction …
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.